Last Update: 25th November 2020
There are a multitude of different ways to learn German for free.
Starting out, it can probably feel either overwhelming trying to figure out which method is best. The reality is that you’ll likely need to utilise a few different resources, and knit your own learning plan together based on your specific goals.
So, whether you’re planning your move to Germany, or have recently arrived and are keen to get your basic German language skills off the ground, we’ll show you how to get started with your German learning journey for free in this article.
Learn German for Free: Some Great Ideas to Get Your Basic German Skills Sorted
- Grammar is a necessary evil
- Teach Yourself German using different resources
- Learning German only using free content has its limitations
- Study German online with resources from cultural institutions
- Podcasts for learning German
- Apps for learning German
- YouTube Channels that teach German
- Learn German listening to radio or watching German TV
- Read newspapers and magazines from Germany
- Learn German by reading blogs about your hobbies
- Speak German with a language tandem partner
- Use Facebook Groups for learning German
- Switch your smartphone language setting to German
- That’s a lot of resources, so which should I pick?
- What to do when you’ve reached your limit
If this is the first time you’re learning a language, there are essentially 4 skills you will need to develop and work on as you progress towards your goal to learn basic German. These are:
In addition, you need to work in tandem to increase both your range of German vocabulary and your understanding of basic German grammar.
Grammar is a necessary evil
Yes, I’m afraid grammar is boring.
And yes, it IS true that you can build up a basic comprehension of the language initially just learning vocabulary and phrases and bypassing the grammar.
However, at some point, you’re going to have to learn some German grammar for beginners. Even if you don’t care about making some mistakes when you speak or write, you’ll soon get stuck.
Without knowledge of basic German grammar, you won’t be able to conjugate a verb in the right tense or use the correct preposition in a sentence.
If you can’t do this, then what you’re trying to say could be impossible for a native speaker to understand or could make what you’re saying complete nonsense to them.
Teach yourself German using a mix of different resources
Getting the mix right of the different German leaning resources will be one of the most effective ways you can speed up your progress towards being able to effectively communicate with native speakers.
Each one of these building blocks will have certain tools and learning methods which are more suited to it.
For example, you’re not going to learn to read German by listening to a podcast. Likewise, you’re not going to improve your speaking by reading newspapers (except for perhaps your vocabulary).
We therefore suggest using different resources for each pillar to improve the mix of exposure you get to different aspects of German practice. Pick one for each that you prefer and mix and match them together.
Here are examples of great resources for each specific action:
- DW / Goethe Institut
- You Tube
- Radio / TV
- Tandem partner
- DW / Goethe Institut
- Tandem partner
- DW / Goethe Institut
- All of them
- All of them
Learning German using only free content has its limitations
One thing is clear though. At some point, you will come to the end of the road if you’re just trying to utilise free resources for German as a second language. Especially if your goal is to become proficient.
Don’t get me wrong. Using these strategies to learn German online for beginners is absolutely fine – but they’re only going to get you to a certain level.
But if you REALLY want to progress fast and reach B1 / B2 level (for example to obtain a job seeker visa or to apply for university) then you’re going to need to have more structure, discipline and accountability.
In short, you’re going to need German classes. You should think seriously about getting yourself some professional tuition by means of an intensive German course.
The courses by Smarter German come highly recommended with lots of testimonials. Their flagship course offers proven, modern and fun methods to learn German online from A1 (complete beginner) to B1 (lower intermediate) level.
But first, let’s take a look at the different ways you can learn German for free, through mastering the basic German learning resources available in the public domain.
Study German online with resources from cultural institutions
These are major organisations with big budgets for content creation.
DW is a German public state-owned international broadcaster. As well as broadcasting news in more than 30 languages, they also have a wide range of free resources available for German language learners on their website.
Their resources are also available in many other languages other than English, making it a great choice for German language learning if you’re a non-native English speaker.
Needs no introduction as the most famous German language cultural institution. There is lots of free material as well as information about their paid courses on their website.
Similar to DW, their range of resources covers written and spoken material and is professionally produced and easy to navigate through.
Podcasts for learning German
Podcasts are a great way to learn German while you’re doing something else.
Because you’re listening to them rather than interacting with them, this is a great way to subconsciously get some German practice while you’re on the train, walking the dog, doing household chores or whatever!
They are particularly useful to pick up some basic grammatical concepts, or give you some German audio lessons with some context or explanation behind the spoken content of what is being said.
We review 15 great shows to help you learn German by podcast in our separate article on this topic.
We’ve picked out about half which are for absolute beginners and the rest for those who have already mastered learning basic German and are looking to take their knowledge beyond basic phrases and comprehension.
What German learning podcasts won’t do is give you writing, speaking or reading practice, so they’re really only useful for practicing listening comprehension and understanding how German words are pronounced.
Apps for learning German
Language learning apps are great because they are user-friendly, simple to use, always in your pocket on your smartphone and in many cases, also free.
For absolute beginners, you will be able to learn the basics without having to pay anything.
Many of them will require a small in-app purchase to unlock more advanced content though.
But let’s be clear. An app will not get you to fluency. This is especially true if you’re learning German as your first foreign language.
If it’s your first rodeo, then you REALLY need a more structured form of tuition such as an online German course, to explain grammatical concepts and rules that are alien to you.
It’s also great to be able to ask questions in community groups or regular “office hours” Q&A meetings.
What apps do great is gamifying the experience and expanding your vocabulary and range of phrases in a fun way. They’re also extremely useful to help you through a number of different functions.
You just need to find the right app, or apps, for your specific needs. Finding the best German language app will usually boil down to what you want:
- General “all-in-one” apps such as Duolingo, MosaLingua and Mondly.
- Online dictionaries
- Verb conjugation tools
- Translation devices. I particularly love the ones that can read menus and translate them into English!
- Practicing grammatical concepts e.g. the declension of nouns (der / die / das)
- Listening to pronunciation
They’re something you should be using as an accompanying tool along with another, more structured method of language learning.
Think of an online course or classroom tuition as the coffee, and the German apps as the cream or the sugar.
You Tube channels that teach German
There are some fantastic resources out there on YouTube.
Each of the content creators on the platform who produce videos to help you learn German for free are passionate about what they do, and they want you to succeed.
Picking one whose teaching style and personality you like is arguably just as important as the content that they produce itself.
Because if it’s somebody who teaches in a way you find fun, informative and effective, then you’re much more likely to subscribe to their channel and continue to learn using their resources.
We’ve put together a playlist on our YouTube channel of videos which we think are useful.
We also covered some of the most popular You Tube channels in a separate article, so as you can get a feel for what’s out there!
The biggest downside of YouTube is that it doesn’t provide an opportunity to practice in the same way that an interactive app does.
Neither do you have the opportunity to ask the video creator questions if there is a something in their video that you don’t understand or require further explanation of.
Learn German listening to radio or watching German TV
Listening to German radio is as easy as downloading a radio app from the App Store or Google Play.
There are also plenty of German stations in iTunes that you can listen to if you’re an Apple user.
Watching German TV is a bit trickier, unless you’re just looking for news headlines and snippets. Germany’s most popular news show, Tagesthemen, can be watched on broadcaster ARD’s YouTube channel, along with other short current affairs reports.
But if you want to watch actual German TV shows, then you will need to use a VPN to give you a German IP address, so as you can access live streaming services.
Read newspapers and magazines from Germany
Content that is written for native speakers is a great way to get a feel for the language in daily use.
Although generally viewed by Germans as a populist rag, the Bild-Zeitung is useful for German learners because the vocabulary and style is not very intellectually challenging.
Other notable German newspapers are Germany’s biggest circulation daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, its biggest rival the Süddeutsche Zeitung (from Munich), weekly publication Die Zeit, as well as many other regional publications.
All of the above are pretty dry and serious, however, and unless your German vocabulary range is good, you’re going to find them challenging.
Stern (lifestyle / current affairs) – Easier to read than Der Spiegel and Focus in terms of the style of writing. Intermediate German learners should be able to follow articles in Stern without too much trouble.
Focus (current affairs, business, finance) – Somewhere between Stern and Der Spiegel, Focus also focuses more on financial and business journalism. For advanced learners.
Der Spiegel (current affairs, business, politics) – It’s broadly equivalent in its content, stature and seriousness to The Economist for the English-speaking market. Definitely for advanced learners!
Learn German by reading blogs about your hobbies
Go to the German version of Google and search there to get better results
Search for the German term of the hobby or interest you want to read about.
In my example below, I entered the search “blog: reisen” – the phrase for “travel blog” into Google. It gave a list of articles highlighting the best German-language travel blogs.
Try it for your hobby or interest.
All you need to know is the word or phrase in German and the search engine will do the rest.
Speak German with a language tandem partner
First of all, what’s a tandem partner?
It’s when you and a native German speaker do a language swap. You help them improve their English (or whichever language). They help you improve your German conversation.
There are online portals where you can find a tandem partner by searching those profiles of native German speakers who want to learn your language.
Tandem is an app.
If you’re already living in Germany, another way to do this is to join a local language exchange event in your city. Germans are generally quite keen to learn other languages, especially if you’re a native English or Spanish speaker.
If you’re a native speaker of a more exotic language, it may be a bit trickier to find a partner.
Look on Facebook for language tandem groups, or search your local what’s on entertainment magazine, or your local university notice board. You’ll find them.
Use Facebook Groups for learning German
Finding an accountability partner to motivate you and keep you going if you’re struggling to maintain momentum or keep motivated is a great way to keep your focus.
There are loads of Facebook Groups dedicated to German learning resources.
Some of them are run by online tutors or course providers. Others are just hobby groups to encourage participation.
Switch your smartphone language setting to German
This one can be really effective.
When I was trying to intensively improve my Spanish (I had an Argentinian girlfriend at the time), I changed the language on my phone from English to Spanish.
It’s great for teaching you some words that you otherwise probably wouldn’t learn so quickly, and also gives you exposure to the language on those days where you don’t have time to study.
You can do the same for your social media accounts’ language settings too.
That’s a lot of resources, so which should I pick?
There’s no right answer to this question.
Obviously, it would be foolish and overwhelming to try to use them all. Try a few though, before settling on 3 or 4 which you really like and feel that are helping you make progress.
But whichever mix of resources you choose, it’s important that you have a balance of listening, reading, writing and speaking practice opportunities.
Likewise, it’s also important that you’re learning grammar as well as just vocabulary.
A rough guideline would be learn 1 part grammar to 4 or 5 parts vocabulary.
Listening and speaking are arguably going to be more important skills than reading and writing in the first instance, especially if you’re learning German WHILE you’re living in Germany.
What to do when you’ve reached your limit
After a while, mix them up and try something new so as you don’t get bored of the same resource.
It’s important to know when you’ve reached your limit with free resources. At some point, it’s time to take the next step, invest in yourself and take more structured tuition.
italki is great for German speaking practice because you get to speak to native speakers online via Skype and have a natural basic German conversation outside of a classroom setting.
A top rated intensive German course, such as those offered by our friend Michael Schmitz at Smarter German, is a great way to have more structure to study German online, without you having to attend in-person classes each week.
These courses also come recommended by hundreds of successful alumni.
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